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January 21, 2003

Economics 102 For The Commissioners

Mike Kuster

In our previous class, we discussed the pros and cons of different types of taxes at the local level. Today, we'll discuss the unique economics of government.

The impetus of this class lies in several sources. We'll address each one. First, the Frederick News Post ran an article regarding the amount of paid leave given to government employees. Second, new commissioner and vice-president of the board, Mike Cady, suggested eliminating one of eight county jobs. Lastly, the constant claim by politicians that government is too big.

Holidays for Government Employees Saves Money

It seems many people, including some elected officials, lack an understanding of the financial benefits gained by closing down government offices for a day. Of course, many employees are paid the same amount if they go to work or not. However, a large number of employees are not paid. There are many contractual employees who only get paid for the hours they work. If the government is closed, the hundreds of contractual employees get no pay for that day. This is not a small amount of money being saved.

Beyond the cost savings in staff, the buildings being closed saves money on electricity, water, janitorial services, and more. Imagine the cost savings of turning thousands of computers, monitors, printers, copiers, lights, and heat pumps off.

Government employees may receive more days of paid leave than private industry employees. Why shouldn't taxpayers be mad? Each day the government is closed, the taxpayer saves money.

Government is Too Big

I would agree wholeheartedly at higher levels of government. State and federal government agencies exist as large, unwieldy bureaucracies that operate without much supervision from the elected officials funding them.

At the local level, the agencies and departments are closer to the elected officials and their staff. The supervision received is much more critical on a local level. The directors of local agencies know what is really needed and what is happening within their organizations.

There may always be room for improvement at the local level. The amount of waste on a local level is much less severe than at the state and federal level. Unfortunately, many politicians learn their catch phrases from their federal counterparts.

Eliminating 1 of 8 County Jobs is Impossible

It seems Mr. Cady subscribes to the notion that government is too big. He suggested recently that one of eight county jobs could be eliminated from the budget.

As we discussed earlier, local government is pretty trim. There are undoubtedly areas that can be cut, but not 1/8th of the job force. Let's explore some departments.

School Health, for example, could not eliminate 1/8th of its work force. This department assigns one nurse for every two or three schools, and one health tech for every school. State law requires that the individual dispensing medication must be trained and certified. So, the school secretary can no longer dispense medication. Therefore, cutting one job out of every eight would leave many schools without necessary medical staff. With the burgeoning population, this department needs a larger staff rather than a smaller staff.

Interagency Information Technologies, the county's computer technology department, could not eliminate 1/8th of its work force. As technology permeates government office and becomes more sophisticated, more technology staff is needed. The needs of government offices and the demands of their clientele require constant changes and upgrades. Four years ago, my agency had very few computers. The billing and accounting professionals used most of the computers. Today, everyone in the building has and uses a computer every day. This department needs growth not shrinkage.

These two departments are examples of how eliminating 1/8th of the employees across the board will not work. There are other departments with the same issues. The nursing homes are staffed following state regulations. For every department that cannot eliminate staff, others have to eliminate more to meet the demand. I doubt any agency can cut 1/4th or 3/8th of their staff.

Government employees make-up the largest part of the budget for any level of government. It's easy for someone coming into office trying to solve an budget shortfall to first look at staff. This is, however, not the best idea.

Elected officials should spend some time in each department and agency within their government. By watching and observing the daily activities of employees and their agencies, the elected officials will find fat to cut out of the budget. They will likely find waste, duplication of services and more. Blind swipes at the budget will solve nothing.

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